Secondary barrel finishes are of course commonplace in the bourbon world by this point, and their role is understood by even the casual bourbon fan. Sticking your whiskey into a sherry, port or other spirit barrel after maturation allows for the ability to spin the liquid in a new direction, and charge a premium while you’re at it. Some spirits companies, such as Angel’s Envy, have made these secondary finishes the core of their entire business, but for most distilleries they’re an attractive way to do special releases and limited editions.
One corner of the “secondary finished” world I’ve never quite wrapped my head around, though, is bourbon or rye that is finished in standard wine barrels. Whereas the more assertive flavors of fortified wines such as sherry or port are typically easy to pick up in a spirit after it spends time in those barrels, standard strength wines are considerably more subtle, especially when they’re meant to influence the bold flavors of bourbon, rather than the more delicate tones of say, single malt scotch whisky. The question becomes: If you stick your bourbon into a red wine barrel, how does that really change the whiskey?
The answer, of course, depends upon many variables, from the whiskey itself, to the style of barrels in which it’s undergoing its secondary maturation. Which brings us to today’s dram: Bardstown Bourbon Co.’s second collaboration with The Prisoner Wine Co.
Bardstown’s The Prisoner is a limited release that fully commits to exploring the effects of wine barrel aging, sticking a 10-year-old Tennessee bourbon (presumably Dickel, given the 84/8/8 mash bill) into The Prisoner’s French oak wine barrels for a full 18 months of secondary maturation before release. It’s released at a sturdy 50% ABV (100 proof), at a fairly high MSRP of $125, similar to the brand’s Discovery series, and considerably more than the more affordable Fusion series. Some 3,000 cases were made.
I’m already on the record as a fan of Bardstown’s blending savvy in product lines such as Fusion, so let’s see how their sourced whiskey fares here when given the secondary maturation treatment.
In the glass, it’s immediately clear that this spirit had long contact with the wine barrels—it has picked up a whole lot of garnet/ruby coloration, and almost a hibiscus-like brightness. If someone poured it for you blind, you’d wonder if it was extremely well aged, or you might guess at its secondary finishing.
On the nose, the first thing that immediately hits me is baking spice. The French oak has very much asserted itself here, in the way it so often does. To my senses, French oak barrels often contribute a rich “spicebox” quality of mixed baking spices, and those are primary here, with lots of cinnamon, clove, pepper and allspice. I’m also getting sweet brown sugar and some toastier notes, a mustier maltiness and hints of cocoa. I find myself searching for the red fruitiness that you’d expect to be a highlight with the wine barrel aging, but I’m not really finding it on the nose. Rather, the oak itself has put its stamp on this whiskey in a pleasant way, especially for lovers of warm, brown spices.
On the palate, much of the same holds true, but there’s considerable caramelized sugars here as well. Brown sugar, vanilla bean and caramel sauce give it a fairly sweet entry, which does eventually evoke some very dark fruitiness—black berry jam with pith, perhaps. I still don’t find fruitiness to be a dominant presence, however, and the whiskey instead favors French oak influences and baking spice notes of pepper and allspice. A bit syrupy in texture, it’s a more decadent dram than the Bardstown Fusion without a doubt, although some might find the spice profile to be a bit overwrought. A bit of drying tannin on the back end is a welcome closure.
This is an interesting bourbon, and lovers of French oak flavors will definitely want to take note. It might have some difficulty justifying that $125 price point, especially when Bardstown’s Fusion is available for around $60-70, but it would be interesting to taste side by side with the well-regarded Discovery. If you have a friend with a well-stocked wine seller and a taste for bourbon, it’s a bottle to keep in mind.
Distillery: Bardstown Bourbon Co.
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Straight bourbon (red wine barrel finished)
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $125 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.